Sunday, October 19, 2014
Readers of this blog know how much I love and appreciate independent bookstores. Recently I suddenly thought about how there is actually a wonderful independent bookstore in my own extended family. I hadn’t thought before about writing about it here, because it is in Canada and I have only visited it once, some years ago. I wrote to my cousin Craig Carson, whom I rarely see because of geography, but with whom I recently connected on Facebook. Craig first worked with, and then took over this bookstore, Second Page, from his mother, my Aunt Mali Carson, some years ago when she was no longer able to continue running it. He has owned and managed it ever since; between them they have run it for 35 years. I asked him for background information about the bookstore, and he was kind enough to write up a brief history for me. Below is a slightly edited (with his permission) version of that history. It makes me happy to think of this bookstore and its family connection! And I so admire Aunt Mali and Craig for making this bookstore a community center and a beloved place for all booklovers as well as a successful business that contributes to the local economy and environment. I wish I lived nearer so I could visit it more often. Here is Craig’s story about Second Page. “In 1979, Mali Carson and her business partner Dorothy Carmichael purchased an existing used book store in Courtenay, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. Second Page was the business name chosen by my mother to reflect the second unnumbered page in a book, which is often the title page. The store was housed in one room for fifteen years until it was expanded into the vacant shop next door. I purchased Dorothy's share of the business in 2000 and Mom and I worked together for the next three years. In 2003 she had to stop working as her physical health was failing. The next three years included phone calls to Mom at the end of each workday to discuss the day at the store. In 2006 the main room in the store was renovated; I was happy that the renovation was finished in time for my mother to be pleased with the final result before she died later that same year. Soon after, I was dealing with some personal difficulties, but was able to overcome them, and I found that my experiences enriched my connections with the bookstore and its customers. My ability to communicate understanding and compassion within the store has led to many in depth conversations that have been beneficial both to myself and the customers. As mother in her way bonded with her customers, so have I have been inspired to share life changing stories with many of my customers. This is what makes the store my favorite place. It is full of humanity and compassion, respect and love. It is a gathering and sharing place open to one and to all, a safe place for those who need it, with hugs on request and occasionally tears. The store has two cats, each 10 years old, brother and sister from the same litter. Boo the Magnificent weighs in at 22 pounds and his little sister Princess Teeka, the boss of us all, is a more normal 10 pounds. Fourteen years ago the store was situated on a quiet side street. That same street today is second in activity only to the main shopping street. Now in 2014, six years after the recession, our downtown core is finally recovering from that recession and the onslaught of big box stores and their like. Second Page is proud to be an active member in the renewal and transformation of Courtenay's downtown core, as well as to provide books and a gathering place for the community."
Friday, October 17, 2014
But I kept on reading…. Why? I really don’t know. I picked "Cutting Teeth" up from the library because I had read a decent review or at least short notice of the novel in one of the publications I read regularly, although now I can’t remember which one. There is a modicum of a story – actually several stories – to be found in Julia Fierro’s novel (St. Martin’s, 2014). It tells the story of a New York “Mommies” playgroup, the members of which decide to go for a weekend at the beach, with their spouses and children. We hear a lot about the problems of each adult, problems that are child-related, fertility-related, marriage-related, career-related, (clinical-level) anxiety-related, drug-related, petty-crime-related, and more. Furthermore, the adults seem to have little in common besides their children, and they don’t seem to really like each other or each other’s children very much. Their relationships when under the pressure of living in the same house for a long weekend soon deteriorate badly. The author does capture the way parents, perhaps especially parents in their thirties living in New York,and their ilk elsewhere, are so focused on their children’s being perfect and having perfect lives that they crumble when their children have developmental or behavioral or other issues, including, in some cases, just being "normal" instead of excelling at something or everything. Every parent can understand this, but the message is drawn out in a way that is at first annoying and then maddening. Even though some of the characters and families are facing genuinely difficult situations, it is hard to be very sympathetic because they themselves are both unsympathetic and irritating. I know that readers don't have to "like" the characters to appreciate the novel, but here their annoying and self-indulgent behavior and dialogue is just too much. Perhaps one has to be in the same situation to fully appreciate this novel? I am a parent, but of an adult daughter, and although I recognize some of these parental behaviors and attitudes, and very probably was guilty of some of them myself, I find this book’s portrayal of them, and the general whininess and unpleasantness of the characters and their interactions, almost intolerable. So I ask myself again: Why did I keep reading? And I answer again: I am not sure. Perhaps it is one of those “it’s so bad that you can’t stop watching” situations.
Monday, October 13, 2014
Being an author with a very famous name inherited from a very famous person or persons must be a mixed blessing, but it does initially get one noticed. When I was browsing and picked up a novel by Esther Freud, of course I immediately wondered about her possible relationship to Sigmund Freud. It turns out she is the great-granddaughter of the great psychoanalyst, as well as the daughter of the famed painter Lucian Freud. Another reason I picked up Freud’s novel “Lucky Break” (Bloomsbury, 2011) is that when wandering through bookstores during a recent European trip, I noticed that there were many books by British authors (beyond the most famous writers such as Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt, and Martin Amis) that don’t seem to make the trip across the Atlantic, or at least if they do, they do not get much publicity. I have always read the British classic novels, and have some favorite English and Irish authors (e.g., Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Maggie O’Farrell, Ali Smith, Anne Enright). But the ones I have just alluded to are the less well known, at least in the U.S. So now I consciously look out for such novels. Getting back to “Lucky Break”: This is the story of a group of young people who all want to be actors, and who meet at drama school. The novel follows them into their thirties, telling of their artistic successes and failures, as well as their personal relationships. It is an ensemble novel, with four of the characters receiving the most attention from the author. It shows the difficulties of making a life in the arts, and some of the minor characters give up early on. However, apparently it is not the author’s aim to show true poverty or difficulty, in that all the characters somehow manage to maintain decently comfortable lives, albeit sometimes in less-than-ideal housing, and don’t seem to truly suffer. The characters are interesting, and their interactions are as well. There are suggestions of competition and jealousy, but these never become major themes. This is a pleasant, enjoyable, occasionally quirky, well-written novel, but not one I am likely to long remember.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer's death on Thursday (10/9/14) at the age of 89 is sad. But we are fortunate that she left us her wonderful poetry. The New York Times obituary sums it up well: "Ms. Kizer's poetry is known for its wit, deep intellectualism and rigorous craftsmanship; its stylist hallmarks include impeccably calibrated rhyme, near-rhyme and meter. It is unsentimental, at times unsettling, but also luminous and warm." Her poetry is also "unmistakably feminist." Her work and life, even beyond her poetry, demonstrated her commitment to equality for women. For example, in 1998 "she and Maxine Kumin resigned as chancellors of the Academy of American Poets to protest the lack of women and minority group members in its leadership." This reminds me once again of the many, many women writers and artists who have each done what she could, in big and small ways, to fight the good fight against sexism in the arts (and elsewhere). Each such action has moved the cause of equity forward, inch by inch. Brava to this great poet both for her poetry and for her work on behalf of fairness and equity. One more thing: Carolyn Kizer lived in Sonoma (45 minutes north of San Francisco), so I feel an added connection to her.
Friday, October 10, 2014
I seem to be reading a lot of short story collections these days. The latest is “Thunderstruck” (Dial Press, 2014), by Elizabeth McCracken. I had not heard of this author until I read reviews of this new book, but it turns out that she is an established, esteemed and award-winning writer. This reminds me, yet again, of how very many good fiction writers there are, and how even readers who follow the reviews in many periodicals and other sources cannot possibly know about more than a fraction of them. This is both a good thing – how wonderful it is that there are so many gifted writers and terrific books! – and an unfortunate one – many good writers get overlooked, and readers cannot possibly keep up. In any case, I now feel I have “discovered” another terrific author of fiction. McCracken writes about very human characters, involved in very human relationships and interactions: those to do with love and families, as well as neighbors and coworkers and people randomly met as well. (Regular readers of this blog know that these are exactly the qualities I like in fiction.) The characters are very believable, yet neither they nor the things that happen to them are predictable. Which reminds me of an important element in fiction, perhaps especially in short stories: that of surprise. It is a delicate balance between making readers believe the stories and yet keeping them on edge with unexpected events and developments. McCracken manages this balance beautifully.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
British writer A. L.Kennedy is much better known in the U.K. than in North America, although she is respected by critics and readers on both sides of the ocean who do know her work. I have been vaguely aware of her work for a while, and I believe I have read something of hers sometime, perhaps in The New Yorker, but not much. Her recent story collection, “All the Rage” (published in the U.S. by New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is getting good reviews, and I decided it was time to get to know this writer’s work. A word often used about her work is “fierce,” as in “fiercely observant and very funny” (Evening Standard). I think it is an apt word for these stories. She is clearly a brilliant writer. The stories I liked best were the most traditional, rather than those that consisted of interior monologues, but in all cases, I was impressed. Kennedy describes unusual situations and quirky characters. There is a deep sense throughout, despite a certain edginess, of the humaneness of her vision. I think Kennedy's work is a bit of an acquired taste; I am not quite sure if I have acquired it completely myself, but I am glad I read this collection, and will seek out more of her work.
Monday, October 6, 2014
M.F.K. Fisher was a widely revered food and travel -- but especially food -- writer, a literary one. Although she lived and traveled all over, she was perhaps especially famous here in the San Francisco Bay Area, living north of San Francisco for many years. She died there in 1992. I have only read a few excerpts of her writing, and know her mostly by reputation. But when I saw a copy of her only novel, “Not Now but Now” (Viking, 1947, North Point 1982) at our monthly library sale, I bought it on the strength of that reputation. It is the story of Jennie, a stylish and irresistible woman who appears at various points in the past century, always on a train, and meets various people whom she proceeds to enchant. It is very important to her to feel this power, but at some point the people she gets involved with become suspicious and even resentful of her, feeling betrayed, and she walks away from the situation, telling herself she prefers to be free. There is some magic, some fantasy, and much psychology in these linked stories of the same woman, always young, although in situations decades apart. But the novel is a bit too schematic, and the character is not likeable. There is an “Afterword” in which the author says she basically wrote the novel because her publishers urged her to do so, and she did it almost as a lark, and in hopes of making money from it. For me, reading this admission made me like the novel even less. Obviously Fisher was just saying what many authors must have felt, but her candor was off-putting rather than endearing.